Buried in the excitement around this week’s primary elections is an under-appreciated milestone: For the first time in American history, a woman is now a major party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Think about that. It may seem anticlimactic that Hillary Clinton has secured the delegates to win the Democratic nomination, but never before has a female candidate gotten this close to the White House. Women have had the right to vote for less than a century.
Clinton has been in politics so long, and surrounded for so much of her adult life by personal, cultural and partisan drama, that voters can be forgiven for seeing her less as a leader than as an ideological symbol. She has been the embodiment of ’60s idealism and of raw ’90s ambition, the Wellesley student who spoke at her 1969 commencement about “integrity, trust and respect” and the first lady who famously wasn’t going to bake cookies.
She has been the cheated-on career woman and the secretary of state accused of cheating the rules about emails. She has been a U.S. senator and the target of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. She has been admired, reviled, pitied, feared, loved, begrudged and dismissed as “likable enough,” and still, she has remained standing. Perhaps that’s what it takes to crack the thickest glass ceiling of all.
Then again, even in 1999, nine Americans in 10 told Gallup that, at least in theory, that they would have no problem with a woman in the Oval Office. So perhaps this moment would have come about regardless.
In any case, something’s happening here, as the song went when Clinton was in college. It may not be happening quickly enough, but political leadership is more inclusive than it used to be.
Women make up about a fifth of Congress and about a quarter of elected office holders statewide – nowhere near where they should be, given that women are half the electorate, but better than the miniscule share of seats women held in the 1970s.
It may seem anticlimactic that Hillary Clinton has secured the delegates to win the Democratic nomination, but never before has a female candidate gotten this close to the White House.
California appears poised to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer with the third woman of color to serve in the U.S. Senate. And while fairness comes in all genders, such things matter. Having three women on the U.S. Supreme Court shed a whole new light on Texas’ retrograde abortion laws during oral arguments earlier this year. Pushed by the state Legislature’s Democratic women’s caucus, California now has one of the strongest pay equity laws in the nation.
And female leadership gives critical mass to women’s voices culturally, though not everyone has yet gotten the memo. The national outrage over the six-month jail sentence given to Stanford swim team member Brock Turner for sexual assault underscored the legal system’s historic tilt toward male and class privilege, and the refusal of a new generation of women to tolerate it any longer. That the stunning courtroom statement of the woman who was attacked was not only heard, but went viral, is progress, for all of that case’s youthful tragedy.
Little has been made of this election’s historical implications. That’s understandable. Evolution is slow until, one day, everything seems suddenly to have changed.
Donald Trump, with his bigotry and misogyny and resistance to “political correctness,” is nothing if not a backlash to the fact that power is shifting, both slowly and suddenly.
Still, a pause is in order. For months, when Americans have talked about the Democratic frontrunner for the White House, they’ve talked about her politics, her character, her baggage, her friends, her weaknesses as a candidate – almost everything but her gender. It’s remarkable, that this new “woman’s place” should feel so normal.
But it does. And whether she wins or loses, that, too, is a milestone in history.